Navigating Difficult Conversations with Truth and Love

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Hello Critical Thinkers!

In these divided times, people are becoming more polarized and less empathetic to people who have a different perspective. Whether it’s having a tense political discussion with a loved one or an evangelistic encounter with a stranger, now more than ever we need to learn how to properly conduct difficult conversations.

Inspired by the book - “I Beg to Differ: Navigating Difficult Conversations with Truth and Love” by Tim Muelhoff - this post will touch on the following:

  • 4 Ways We Create a Healthy or Toxic Communication Environment 

  • 4 Questions to Help Organize a Difficult Conversation

  • Helpful Scripture Verses Related to Interpersonal Communication

 

WE CREATE A HEALTHY OR TOXIC COMMUNICATION ENVIRONMENT  

1.     …WITH OUR WORDS

Think about the words you typically say during heated exchanges...would they be described as affirming, honest but loving, or verbal vandalism? Do they bring peace or lead to more strife? Though we have less respect for the power of words today it doesn’t change their impact. A Marriage Conference speaker once said:

“You eventually get the spouse you deserve because you’ve shaped them over time - with your words.”

In the case of difficult conversations, the power of words is heightened. It's important to be precise and not exaggerate, to ask not to accuse, and to be earnest and not sarcastic. As God instructs, always aim to impart life not death.

2.     …WITH OUR CONVERSATION HABITS

Just as language is important in a difficult conversation, so too are the following subtle aspects that can strengthen or derail it:

Acknowledgment involves affirming the conversation partner through active listening, not interrupting, and appropriate body language like eye contact and touch. 

Expectations are a part of every conversation. Do you have a positive expectation for the outcome of the conversation, like in the case of speaking to your best friend in the world? Or do you have a negative expectation as a result of a negative history with this person or a bias against the group (ethnic, political, socioeconomic etc) to which that person belongs?

Trust is built up by a person’s character before the conversation, and the honesty displayed during the conversation.

Commitment of a future is important to the integrity of the exchange. Are the people involved confident that an honest, even intense discussion won't end the relationship?

Perception Checking

Even in the best communication environment someone can unintentionally say something you find hurtful. When this happens there are two realities at play. The first reality is the actual statement made and so is out of your control. The second reality however is your interpretation of the statement, which is completely your choice. To demonstrate, if someone says to me, "people like you think that..." {First Order Reality}, I can choose to think that the statement 'people like me' means black people, Christian people, or college graduates {Second Order Reality}. Clearly my choice of interpretation will impact my reaction and the direction of the conversation. So in these cases it is best to clarify before proceeding, through “perception checking”. I would double check my initial perception by saying something like, "Just so I'm clear what do you mean when you say people like me?"

Positive to Negative Ratio

Disagreements are inevitable and can be managed well, but they should not constitute most of the exchanges between two people. Every relationship needs a healthy dose of neutral or positive exchanges to offset each debate. Even in street evangelism it helps to start with polite conversation and shared interests before diving into deep spiritual matters. By contrast, it is not likely a difficult conversation with someone will go well, when only silent tension has grown between you both in the time period leading up to the exchange. 

3.     …WITH OUR EMOTIONS

While humans can never stop having emotions, it is possible and important to manage them (both yours and your reaction to the other person’s emotions). Before entering a conversation, you should be aware of your emotional state. It’s not enough to know that you’re angry or frustrated. You need to dig deeper to discover the multiple emotions at play. This is an important exercise because of all the emotions we feel at one time, we tend to focus on and communicate the most negative one. It’s also important because of “emotional contagion”. Emotions transfer like viruses, typically from the higher expressive person to the lower.

The X-Y-Z formula is an effective way to reduce the intensity of emotion during conflict. You simply explain that when the person says X, in situation Y, it makes you feel Z. For instance, instead of screaming “Why are you being so rude right now?!?”, you can say, “When you sigh and look away {X} while I speak about the faith that’s so important to me {Y}, I feel disrespected {Z}.”

 

4.     …WITH OUR SPIRITUAL PRACTICES

If the self-control and emotional stability required to speak life and to calmly clarify an offensive statement during an exchange seems super human, that’s because it is! You will need to solicit God’s help to get this right.  

“Before you can positively interact with a world full of broken people, you have to first get alone with God… Spiritual habits make community possible.”

Just calling yourself Christian or Spiritual does not magically change you. You’ll need to engage in disciplines that lead to spiritual growth. For instance, if I believe my manager will never change for the better, none of the strategies mentioned above will work. But through spiritual disciplines I allow God to transform my mind and help me to see this person with His eyes.

 

Fundamental spiritual disciplines include:

·       Solitude - Carving out alone time to listen to the Spirit of God

·       Confession – Opening the bad in your life before God (with Scripture as a standard)

·       Worship - Being preoccupied w/God’s goodness

·       Prayer – Entered into before, during, and after the conversation 

 

QUESTIONS THAT ORGANIZE A CONVERSATION

Now that we have an idea of how to create a healthy communication environment, we should start to think about how to structure the actual conversation. The following are 4 questions you should ask yourself when encountering someone who holds a very different perspective from yours.

 

1.     WHAT DOES THIS PERSON BELIEVE?

In order to figure out exactly what the other person believes, you must choose to make listening the first step in your communication strategy. This way, you move from being potential adversaries to partners with the same goal – understanding their problem. It also makes them more willing to listen to you because listening conveys love.

As you listen it’s important to avoid prejudging or gathering information just to figure out how to ambush them later in the conversation. Instead listen to understand, use summarizing statements like “what I hear you saying is…”, and consider their perspective. Most importantly be fully present and listen without distraction.

2.     WHY DOES THIS PERSON BELIEVE THIS?

In the middle of a heated discussion, people tend to give the bottom line of their convictions, not how those convictions were developed. People’s reality is most shaped by significant others, their family of origin and their experiences. Questions that can be asked to gain more insight include:

·       What relationships have influenced your life most?

·       When did you first start to think this way?

·       What experiences have most shaped your thinking?

Finding out a person’s why also serves to correct wrong perceptions you had about them. When we analyze the behaviors of others, we tend to overestimate the internal character flaws (they’re just lazy) and underestimate the external causes (they have an illness). Yet we do the exact opposite with ourselves (I didn’t finish this post earlier because I was busy at work not undisciplined!). People are complex, inconsistent beings that are rarely all good or all bad. We need to move past the surface, develop different interpretations for people’s actions, and find out why they are they way they are.

3.     WHERE DO WE AGREE?

“A wise communicator seeks to build agreements not arguments.” 

There are always two sides to an issue. Finding common ground involves humbly looking for what’s right with the other perspective not just what’s wrong, focusing on questions not answers, and finding common issues and values. Some refuse to concede even an inch for fear of condoning the other side or compromising. However, it is possible to acknowledge good in other perspectives without abandoning yours, and you must leave room for the possibility of being wrong yourself.

4.     HOW DO WE PROCEED?

When engaging others, we can be position-centered or person-centered. Position-centered thinking puts people into groups and follows a script based on analysis about and not time spent with them. A person-centered approach recognizes that we are each unprecedented, unrepeatable souls addressed by God.

People come into a conversation with different contexts, and circumstances. While they speak to you, they could be having the best week or the worst week of their lives. As you apply these concepts during your conversation you should determine:

“With this person, at this time, under these circumstances, what is the one thing I should say?”

What should guide your next statements are your goals for the conversation. Was the purpose just to address an issue, change the other person’s mind about something, or plant a seed in preparation for a future conversation? Ultimately God stresses one relational goal above all else and that is to be gentle in our communication.

HELPFUL SCRIPTURE VERSES

The following verses are a great starting point to pray and meditate on in your journey toward healthier dialogue:

 

Have God search your heart - Psalm 139:23

Overlooking an Offense - Proverbs 12:16

Self-control - Proverbs 25:28

Praying for your enemies - Luke 6:28  

Gifts of the Spirit - Galatians 5:22

Gently restoring someone - Galatians 6:1

Forgive - Ephesians 4:30

Praying about all situations - Philippians 4:6

Training to be godly - 1 Timothy 4:7

Cultivating empathy - Hebrews 13:3

Not repaying evil - 1 Peter 3:9

Giving a gentle answer - 1 Peter 3:15

 

Please gently communicate what you think in the comments section!

Ciao for now!

Richelle